When Peter Murray-Rust thinks about technological advances that have come to the field of organic synthesis in the past 50 years or so, only one thing springs to mind: ground glass joints. “If we look at what a lot of chemists do, it’s no different from what 19th-century chemists did, apart from ground glass joints,” he says. “Ground glass components were a technology that revolutionized the ease of chemical synthesis and brought it from the arcane to the reach of anyone,” he says.
Now, Murray-Rust, a chemistry technophile who is on the faculty of the Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics at the University of Cambridge, in England, sees an even bigger transformation on the horizon for chemistry. “The informatics technological revolution has the ability to make a similar change—from the realm of the arcane to commoditizing it for anyone,” he says.
“With all the enormous advances that have taken place in computer technology, software, and what I would call ‘weak artificial intelligence,’ we’re entering a new era where almost anything is possible in terms of the capture and simple interpretation of information,” Murray-Rust points out. “So, we could get to a stage where systems in the chemical laboratory could read the chemical literature, could record everything that’s happening in the laboratory using fairly standard technology, and could make sense of it for the humans and for other machines in the laboratory.”
It was this line of thinking that got Murray-Rust and his group working on project Ami—the “chemist’s amanuensis.” An amanuensis is defined as “a clerk, secretary or stenographer, or scribe; one employed to take dictation, or copy manuscripts.” Project Ami’s goal is to use technological tools—such as infrared and ultrasonic sensors as well as various forms of video—to record everything that goes on in the lab, with the aim of providing chemists insight into processes that might otherwise puzzle them.
When, for example, a chemist returns to the lab to find that a reaction he or she set up has unexpectedly turned brown and sticky, Ami gives that researcher the ability to replay events to help figure out when and how things went wrong. Were all the correct reagents added? Did a coworker absentmindedly give the flask a swirl? Did the heating go off overnight, thereby lowering the ambient temperature? The video and data logs that Ami creates help chemists determine precise timings and conditions of their reactions.
Users log into Ami using radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags in their identification badges. RFID tags are also used on reagents and lab ware, so precisely which bottle of reagent or which round-bottom flask was used is logged. An RFID reader in a lab coat sleeve can record the precise time when reagents were added to a reaction flask.
Because taking gloves on and off to take notes while working in a lab can become tiresome, Ami uses voice recognition software to let chemists navigate through different experiments, set up a new experiment, or record observations during an ongoing experiment. Murray-Rust’s group even experimented with a Microsoft Kinect game controller to see whether, rather than handling a mouse, a researcher could move a computer cursor via body motion.
Murray-Rust says his inspiration for Ami comes from the starship computer in the science fiction series “Star Trek.” “I’ve always had this idea that you would be able to talk to your environment, and the environment will record everything and be intelligent enough to make sense of it,” he says.
Along those lines, Ami lets chemists peruse a database of reactions from the patent literature or from doctoral theses (most journals are excluded for copyright reasons) so the experimenter can choose appropriate conditions and reagents. “We’re thinking primarily of synthetic organic chemistry,” Murray-Rust says. “When you start to do a reaction it would tell you what was known about the reaction in the literature and what sort of things happen and what sort of things don’t happen.”
While the reaction is going on, infrared sensors monitor fluctuations in temperature, and time-lapse video allows researchers to observe subtle alterations in a reaction solution, such as changes in color or viscosity. Finally, an ultrasonic distance sensor and a motion sensor connected to a video camera record when a person approaches the reaction setup. A technical account of how Ami operates will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Cheminformatics.
“It’s a relatively cheap thing to do,” Murray-Rust says of setting up Ami. The software is mostly open-source, and therefore free, and he estimates the hardware would cost no more than $3,000. The biggest expense comes from putting it all together. For that, Murray-Rust suggests employing a tech-savvy undergraduate. Ultimately, he envisions that equipment manufacturers would start offering “smart fume hoods” equipped with Ami-type sensors and video cameras.
Getting chemists used to the idea of Ami will take some doing, Murray-Rust acknowledges. “What we’re trying to do here is change a culture that is actually very resistant to change,” he says. “Bizarrely, scientists are often the last people to use modern information technology. But all it requires is the will, the resources, and some good engineering.”